Building Community Food Security and Recognizing the Value of Food – Petaluma Bounty’s Suzi Grady, Interviewed for Delicious Revolution

“Over 90% of farmworkers here in Sonoma County are food insecure. That’s a staggering statistic that demonstrates that our food system is not working, right? The people who are pouring their sweat into it are not able to maintain a healthy lifestyle.” – Suzi Grady, Program Director, Petaluma Bounty 

I was first inspired by Petaluma Bounty’s multifaceted approach to ending hunger and health solutions in our community in 2008, while in search of volunteer opportunities after bidding my final farewell to the restaurant industry. The remarkable potential of the group’s 2 1/2 acre Petaluma Bounty Community Farm as a means of building community, teaching, and learning about our local food and agricultural systems seemed abundantly clear to me at the time. But how would or could an organization whose motto is “Healthy Food for Everyone” go about making universal access to adequate healthy food a reality in its community?

I couldn’t help but wonder, as large agriculture and food corporations seemed to have a different understanding of what “healthy” food was. Plus, there had never been much of an effort to guarantee the rights of people to adequate healthy food in the United States, at least not in my lifetime. Some amount of hunger and insecurity seemed to be presumed a normal. The political will has not been there to alter that.

Under the guidance of a talented and dedicated staff, board and volunteers, Petaluma Bounty has been steadily building its community and its responses to food insecurity in ways which benefit everyone – be they consumers, foodies, farmers, parents or CalFresh participants.

The talented, inspirational, and dedicated Suzi Grady – Bounty’s farmer when I first met her, now the organization’s Programs Director – details many of Bounty’s innovative approaches to achieving food security in this edition of the radio show, Delicious Revolution. She also dives into a number of areas where it remains clear we need further education and understanding, such as the value of “organic,” why food should cost more, and the unsustainability of a food system which leaves 9 out of 10 Sonoma County farmworkers food insecure.

Below is a highly selective, partial transcript of the conversation that highlights a few key areas I’ve just mentioned, but the entire program is worth a listen. Click on the Soundcloud box above. – RR

 

From Delicious Revolution, episode #40:

Former Petaluma Bounty farmer Lennie Larkin (left) & Petaluma Bounty Program Director Suzi Grady (right)

About Petaluma Bounty’s approach

Suzi Grady (SG): “Are you trying to solve one problem, like hunger, in the community, or are you trying to develop the capacity of your community to respond to that problem?”

SG: “Something that I think is the anchor of Bounty is that we’re trying to push beyond emergency food as the primary response to food insecurity and its close first cousin, food-related illnesses such as obesity.”

Bounty discovered in speaking with the community that a great many people wanted some sort of work-trade, desiring to make an investment of time and/or labor in return for produce.

SG: “They want to put sweat equity in to get access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Unfortunately it’s illegal; labor laws prevent it.

So when the opportunity arose, Bounty hired a bilingual Bounty Hunters coordinator who focused on recruiting volunteers from food pantry lines,

SG: “and that helped increase our volunteer numbers, because there’s more food out there than we can get to. We’re limited by [the number of] our volunteers, so we shifted our initiative where people could take upwards of a third to a half of the produce that was harvested. That’s just a way of shifting that dynamic, from perpetuating this situation where people have to wait in line for something that should be a right – which is to fresh and healthy food – and getting them to be a part of the solution.

Supporting All Food System Stakeholders

Delicious Revolution: “I think at first glance you could hear about Petaluma Bounty and think that it’s a food access charity, but it seems like so much of what you do is challenging what that is. You’re meeting immediate need for food, but at the same time you’re really challenging some of the big problems there are with the idea that it’s charity, right?”

SG: [So that leads to the question of] “how do we get more people on CalFresh (or food stamps) to utilize farmers markets, and that’s why we started the initiative called Farmers Market LIFE, it’s a market match program for people in Sonoma County basically.  If you’re unfamiliar, it’s for people to be able to get a dollar for dollar match for their produce using their CalFresh benefits. Again, using that same idea, it’s shifting away from giving things away to supporting multiple stakeholders of the food system. So we’re increasing low-income folks’ purchasing power and we’re increasing the customer base of small-scale farmers. The more we can align solutions, as our permaculture friends (myself included) like to say, “stacking functions,” we find solutions that benefit our environment, our local economy, our health, etc. That’s where we try to push away from, or make it less only emergency food, only a food bank system that is reliant upon our conventional food system to work, to diversifying.

Food Insecurity in Sonoma County

“Over 90% of farmworkers here in Sonoma County are food insecure. That’s a staggering statistic that demonstrates that our food system is not working, right? The people who are pouring their sweat into it are not able to maintain a healthy lifestyle.”

“There are subsidies that exist in our food system, but their just going to the wrong things, and that’s why it is so much easier and cheaper for people to purchase more processed food than fresh fruits and vegetables.”

“We need to engage people in conversation about the needs that exist in your own backyard. Instead of looking at other countries where there’s poverty and there’s starvation, there are signs of malnutrition in your own community.”

“Given the higher cost of living in our community,” people are considered to be potentially food-insecure who have an income below $55,000.

As a consequence it’s estimated that people miss an estimated 34 million meals annually in Sonoma County.

Community Food Security

DR: “Can you talk a little bit about what community food security is, and how it’s different from individual or household food security?”

SG: “Community food security, here and now, what it means to us, means that more of our food is sourced from our community and that more people feel that they can, either through their own purchasing abilities or growing abilities or reaching out to some of the services that are provided, that people are able to have regular, consistent access to healthy food that’s culturally appropriate.”

“There are all kinds of different ways” to define it, to achieve it, “but saying we’re all in it together, as opposed to really focusing on the individual being able to provide everything for themselves,” is incredibly important. 

Farmers Markets and the Value of Food

[Suzi asked DR if she could return to the farmers markets subject and address one of the problems promoting farmers markets.]

“One of the biggest barriers we have to getting more people on CalFresh to use farmers markets is because it’s seen as so elitist, and that foodie culture really works to our disadvantage. People don’t feel like farmers markets are very inviting spaces because it’s been advertised [that way], you know a lot of tourist money actually goes into talking about how our farmers markets are where chefs purchase their food. A lot of our community members don’t feel comfortable going there, especially if they don’t use English as a primary language.”

“We’re trying to develop – together – initiatives that will make our farmers markets more inviting to everyone.”

“If you look at the average household income and what people are spending money on, the percentage going towards food has gone down significantly, so I guess I’d make the radical statement that so much of our work is to revalue our food, you know, to get people to really be aware of what it takes to grow food well, and that food should cost more. But we need to work together as a community to make sure that doesn’t keep people that have limited resources” from participating.

“That’s really the crux of what we’re doing here. High quality food should cost more. It’s of higher value. There’s higher nutrient density. It costs farmers more to make it in the way that we love to eat it. That’s where these subsidies coming in at the end make a lot more sense, because it maintains the value of the food, where the farmer can get closer to making a living wage – not there yet – and it still allows low-income folks to participate.”  

“I support this idea that our food should be more expensive. If you look at everything put into it, it’s the fact that petroleum is subsidized, and everything else to get it to be this cheap.”

Evolving and Preventing Burnout

“I think there’s so much value in connecting and hearing and also commiserating sometimes, right?,” she laughed.

“When I was trying to make more radical political change in my younger years I got so fed up with institutions of power, I just went back to community and started making relationships happen and building community around food, and there’s something very powerful and wholesome about that. So I feel like a lot of our work is taking it to the next level. We all know that something feels right when we’re here on the Bounty farm having a potluck. Can we take what’s right, in essence, and expand it and make sure everyone has the opportunity to do the same. It’s a very safe place to start these more political conversations.”

“It’s not that our problems are caused by one thing that we just need to recalibrate and our systems will work, or we’ll be healthier, or it’ll solve cancer. Sometimes yes, but a lot of times, no, so we need diverse mindsets, we need people that are willing to step out of the scientific method. We have blind spots, and I don’t know about you, but part of what aligned me with this work was [that] I could project problems happening, because I see patterns often where other people don’t or they get so excited by that new way of packaging an old solution.”

Many thanks to Devon Sampson for the illuminating interview. You can find more information about the Delicious Revolution show here.

Join us on January 31 at the Lagunitas Taproom and Beer Sanctuary from 5:30 – 8 pm as we raise funds to support the organization’s programs. Get your tickets here.

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